The idea of sitting in a funeral home and having a lively conversation about food nostalgia isn’t terribly far-fetchedespecially in a historic district like Durham’s Hayti, where the life and death of black prosperity is obvious from simply walking through the area.

John Clarence “Skeepie” Scarborough III, owner of the longstanding Scarborough & Hargett Funeral Home Inc., is Hayti’s go-to oral historian. He and I are sitting at a large table inside the funeral home’s meeting room. A bronze, life-size statue of Martin Luther King Jr. presides over us like a giant lost chess piece. In one hand, King holds a Holy Bible. His other hand is pointing toward somewhere unknown.

Somewhere to eat, maybe?

“Nobody told you about Minnie?” asks Scarborough. He’s referring to Minnie Hester’s House, one of Durham’s notorious women-run liquor houses that also doubled as a late-night kitchen. “Chitterlings, collard greensthat kind of stuff,” he explains. “At one o’clock in the morning, that was the only place to get food. James Brown was in town one night. I went to hear him. When he got ready to leave, he told a good friend of his from Durham, ‘OK, Bill, now run me over to Minnie’s.’ She served whatever you wanted till three o’clock.”

Scarborough knows about comfort. His stories come from his life’s work providing for his community during times of grief, when consolation and empathy are most important. So, when it comes to comfort food, especially that of the dozens of black-owned restaurants that used to serve it in pre-urban-renewal Hayti, Scarborough remembers every detail.

He also remembers how all those great eating establishments succumbed to systemic erasure, similar to what his funeral home is fighting against today. Sometimes, a legacy like Ms. Hester’s isn’t enough.

“We didn’t even think about going downtown,” Scarborough tells me, “because we knew that we would have problems. But we didn’t have to. Black businesses thrived in anything that we did. We only crossed the train tracks when we had to go pay our bills.”


Today, the Durham Freeway runs parallel to those tracks. Crossing them for a meal probably means paying a big bill at a nice restaurant.

Scarborough speaks of Hayti’s heyday, when most of the black-owned restaurants were centralized and clustered together over a one-to-two-mile radius. Despite segregation’s exclusionary “separate but equal” clause, black business owners in Haytiincluding black restaurateursleveraged it to their advantage. In the Jim Crow South, blacks and whites shopped together at department stores, but most cafes, lunch counters, and restaurants were fully segregated. Hayti’s black restaurant owners served a self-sufficient community that showed no signs of abandoning its beloved eating institutions. But with the end of Jim Crow and the introduction of integration, that’s exactly what black patrons didthey exercised their right to eat in white-owned restaurants.

“You have to look at it as pre-desegregation and post-desegregation,” explains Andre’ D. Vann, N.C. Central’s coordinator of university archives and co-author of Durham’s Hayti, a book documenting the area’s rich history. “Based on segregation, African-American institutions were able to flourish, create, develop, and stay intact within the midst of their communities. I don’t want to overgeneralize, but after the sit-ins and laws started occurring in the 1960s, you started seeing the desegregation of public institutions. Some African-American institutions still flourished, but many were moved by the wayside because African Americans no longer only had to go to those African-American institutions. It was a double-edged sword. Then, some raised the question of whether or not many of the white business owners saw Hayti as a deterrent to their growth.”

That’s not the case today. A sub sandwich in downtown Durham will run you almost twenty bucks. The people who can afford that kind of lunch probably don’t live in Hayti.

The Scarborough funeral home has been in business for more than 144 years. After urban renewal forced the family to move its business from East Pettigrew Street, it remained at its largest location, on the corner of Dillard Street and Roxboro Road, until 2010. A section of that site is now the Durham County Courthouse. Before that, it was one of many black-owned businesses that occupied East Pettigrew’s bustling row of black commerce.

Today, the home is located in historic Hayti on Old Fayetteville Street, in an uncharitably smaller and less attractive building that it shares with another once-thriving black-owned institution: The Carolina Times newspaper.

As the story of Durham’s great downtown divide goes, construction for the Durham Freeway began in 1963, uprooting the black commercial district through the Fayetteville and East Pettigrew corridor of Hayti. At least 106 black businesses existed adjacent to the bustling downtown landscape of the segregation-era South (read: white), and they thrived. At the same time, the deleterious federal policies of urban renewal, which spanned across the country from the mid-1950s to the 1970s, debuted in Durham.

As a quick-fix concession, the Durham Redevelopment Commission allotted a trifling $100,000 to erect two steel buildings intended to house some of those businesses that otherwise would have had nowhere to go. That’s where Scarborough’s family business landed. From the outside, the weathered metallic roof on the funeral home and newspaper office caps its rectangular white-painted brick-facade structure and gives it the appearance of a repurposed storage bunker. But it was actually built in the mid-1960s in what was pejoratively referred to by Hayti residents as “Tin City.”

“It wasn’t anything positive,” says Vann. “It was a metal structure only meant, at first, to be temporary. ‘Tin City’ was African Americans’ way of trying to speak against this wishful idea that they would have a place after urban renewal came through and that urban renewal would be great for the community, which it wasn’t.”

Scarborough fondly recalls The Green Candle, a once-popular black-owned restaurant that was also forced to relocate from East Pettigrew to Tin City before moving one final time to the neighboring Phoenix Square shopping center. But in its original location, The Green Candle served as both a delicious and fancy dining experience away from home for N.C. Central students. Its owner, the late and storied Azona Allen, ran a strict (yet oftentimes slow) kitchen. She had very little tolerance for how some of the African-American businessmen would come in and try to get served ahead of the line. The rule: once she ran out of food, you were out of luck. James Brown tried to eat there once, too, sauntering in late after a show. Allen had already stopped serving, and she didn’t even try to scrape together a plate for him.

“As my grandmother would say, ‘She didn’t take any tea for the fever,’” remembers Vann.

Vann was one of the few people who “Old Lady Allen” let into her inner circle. “I respected her system and process,” he says. “The reputation was that she was this mean, nasty lady. Folks liked her food, but they didn’t like her. She was tough. She had to be tough. You used to see her with a cart, walking from Phoenix Square to the Winn-Dixie in Heritage Square to get fresh stuff to cook. She toted a big wad of money. I knew she did. But nobody messed with her.”

One might say that Allen had plenty of reason to be disagreeable and, in some ways, unforgiving. Urban renewal had just displaced more than 500 black families and destroyed more than 120 black-owned businesses under the pretense that Hayti would be redeveloped. Maybe, in her mind, everyone was to blame, from the black voters duped into overwhelmingly supporting the project, to the white purveyors of a program that essentially ghettoized and constrained what was once a booming, self-dependent black economy.


Two years ago, the Durham Business & Professional Chain—the city’s oldest African-American business advocacy chain— compiled a near-comprehensive list of black-owned restaurants, taverns, inns, and hotels that existed between the early for- ties and the early seventies. It included well- known Hayti eateries such as The Donut Shop, Biltmore Hotel & Grill, College Inn, Elvira’s Blue Dine-et, and Papa Jack’s Congo Grill, just to name a few. Of the twenty-eight listed, only one has survived: The Chicken Box (now Chicken Hut).

Peggy Tapp was just a teenager in 1957, when she began working for her future husband, Claiborne Tapp Jr., as a car hopper at The Chicken Box’s original Durham location, at NC-55 and Riddle Road. Eventually, Tapp moved his restaurant to Hayti after one too many winters of the snow and ice, which discouraged his customers from making the trip out to his place. In 1966, urban renewal forced him out of his Hayti location on South Roxboro Street (then Pine Street) and led him to the restaurant’s current location on Fayetteville Street, a few blocks south of N.C. Central.

Chicken Hut is the longest-running black-owned restaurant in Durham. Tapp attributes its longevity to its no-frills setting. “Chicken Hut is like more of a family restaurant,” she says. “People come to sit, eat, and talk. I’m just so used to the old school.”

These days, Chicken Hut relies on both its longtime customers and new customers that her sonand heir apparent to Chicken Hut’s legacyClaiborne “Clay” Tapp III, has rallied.

“My son has been very instrumental in bringing in the younger generation,” Tapp says. “Before his daddy died, he promised him that he would try to continue this restaurant. It was his daddy’s life. He made sure that he helped the community. We give more than we get back because our prices are so cheap. He’s always reminding me that we have to move to the next level in order to keep up with the times.”

Chicken Hut still caters big orders for local clients like IBM and N.C. Central. For now, that’s what Tapp considers “next level.” And she is supportive of any growth that the black business community can have in downtown.

“I feel good about black-owned restaurants moving into downtown. I’m glad to see it growing. At one point there was nothing to go down there for. We just have to get engaged in what’s going on.”

The INDY reached out to Durham’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development for a list of black-owned restaurants, like the one created in the 1970s. Today, no such official list exists. (See our own list of the Triangle’s black-owned restaurants.)


One short drive through present-day Hayti proves black-owned dining choices are waning in highly concentrated black communities. Between the Phoenix Crossing and Phoenix Square shopping centers, there are eight black-owned barbershops and salons, but only one black-owned restaurant. And while there isn’t necessarily an anchor tenant in either shopping center, Nzinga’s Breakfast Cafe in Phoenix Crossing is the newest mainstay in Hayti’s legacy.

Nzinga’s owner, Zuri Hester, returned to Durham, her hometown, after graduating from the Johnson & Wales culinary arts and food service management program in 2014. She eventually opened her restaurant in the shopping center, co-owned by her father, Larry Hester, and his wife, Denise. She based her decision on a few factors: the lack of breakfast restaurants near downtown; the difficulty of a black entrepreneur like herself, without any capital, to be approved for a business loan; and her emotional connection to Hayti.

“I feel more of a sense of community here. I know the whole person,” says the twenty-seven-year-old Hester. “I’m not just asking [customers] for their money. Downtown’s redevelopment is a good thing, but for the lower-income or working-class person, it’s kind of hard to be excited about new restaurants that you can’t even afford. Where do the people in my communitywho I know, who I went to school withwhere do they eat?”

For the most part, those people still eat at places like Nzinga’s, Chicken Hut, and another Fayetteville Street diner, Roy’s Country Kitchen, where you can scarf down a “working man’s plate” for $5. Everyone else, it seems, eats at black-owned restaurants in other pockets of Durhamdowntown or further out on NC-55 at Backyard BBQ Pit. Otherwise, black folks are abandoning their own food institutions for nouveau and trendier options. The trend is reminiscent of what happened during integration, now during the city’s new era of downtown revitalization.

There are several reasons this is so. For one, many black-owned restaurants are at a competitive disadvantage because of limited hours of operation. Another is food trends: even as Southern foodor the food stereotypically associated with the Southbecomes more popular across the board, a new generation of African Americans is increasingly adopting healthier eating habits and abandoning what is traditionally served in black-owned restaurants. Lastly, the black middle-class flight to the suburbs removes hyperlocal support from historically black communities.

“After the owner establishes all of that wonderful synergy and has that next generation there, what happens to the business if something happens to the owner?” Vann asks. “I’m not saying that that’s what happened in Durham, but [the lack of black-owned restaurants in Hayti] could likely be the result.”

Dillard’s Bar-B-Q, a popular black-owned restaurant, closed its doors in 2011 after more than seventy years. Wilma Dillard took over in 1997, after her father, Samuel, passed away. Like Chicken Hut, the restaurant managed to survive Hayti district’s post-urban-renewal ruin partly because of its distancea little over a milefrom the area, which still shows signs of decay.

“Everything has a season, and you can’t stop a moving train on a dime,” says Dillard.

We’re sitting at Beyù Caffè, which has garnered much public support as a black-owned business downtown. Beyù’s owner, Dorian Bolden, is seated at a table directly behind me, and in Dillard’s line of vision. I point him out to her. She’s never met him, but she acknowledges that he’s done great things for the black community in Durham by “keeping an underlying mission of culture” in his restaurant. As we talk, she periodically glances over at Bolden, possibly judging him against the pedigree of black restaurateurs before him. It never occurs to me that I should introduce them to each other.

“We could never be a Beyù. That’s not who we were,” she says. “My assignment was to bring closure to Dillard’s. We had a sixty-year season on that site. Dillard’s was important enough for us to give it a proper send-off, to let it rest.”

Soon, the site of the now-closed Dillard’s will become a BP gas station and Family Fare convenience store. It’s not quite the lush lunch spot that once stood there, and it is definitely farther away from downtown. Indeed, sometimes legacy isn’t enough.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Blackout”